The Hothouse is set to be one of the biggest student production Oxford has ever seen. With a set scaling technical heights and projections and videos galore, the show is great in scale and ambition. But it’s not just the set that’s sophisticated. The actors have all been working in a rather more unconventional way than a standard rehearsal process. Instead of finding the ‘right’ way to act a scene and sticking to it, the actors consistently rework and reappraise their scenes through improvisation.
It is a professionalism and respect for both the play and the actors that is behind director Jamie McDonagh’s drive to do Pinter, properly. This involves changing way the play is done from the inside, not the outside. Writing in his blog following the rehearsal process, lead actor Matt Gavan (Roote) explains the problems students have with Pinter, his infamous ‘pause’, and how a change in approach is needed. As students, he writes, we’re pushed towards “analysis, not synthesis. We’re trained to talk about the patterns underlying the play, its causes rather than its effects. This is death to theatre, whose focus is always on effects, on the character which springs from the raw material of the text. Analysis can trick you into acting badly while Doing Everything Right.”
This comfortable, complacent approach to acting that is what McDonagh is seeking to shake up – getting off a ‘route’ of a scene, the same physical and vocal track. Instead of passive recital of lines, the actors are pushed to the limits of their characters and the potentials for them within the scene. I went to watch the cast at work on the first day of this new approach, and the results were striking. Every character, no matter how big the part, has an extensive and painstakingly researched backstory on which the actors draw – right down to knowing whether or not they had porridge for breakfast. Then comes the characters’ objectives. For every scene, McDonagh asks the actors: ‘what are your wants?’, sometimes stopping a scene mid-flow to ask this question – ensuring the actors are still 100% attuned to their characters desires.
The real difference, however, comes in how the scene is played out. McDonagh wants every character to over-play their objectives, to exaggerate and take their character to its extremes, before reducing it back to ‘normal’. If a character’s objective is to stop another leaving the room, for example, the actor could physically block the other character’s exit. The result of this process, where the lines stay the same but everything else is improvised, is to uncover new dynamics and potentials for the scene – as well as ensuring that the play stays fresh. When I arrive in Wadham’s rehearsal studio, the actors are playing a ball-game designed to focus their awareness – a technique used by the cast of the hit show Jerusalem starring Mark Rylance.
During the rehearsal, McDonagh occasionally interrupts to whisper a ‘secret motive’ into one characters ear, or will run a scene with a key dynamic crucially altered: one scene involving a couple is rehearsed twice, once with the characters a mere 2 months into their relationship, and again with them having been married for 25 years. The actors are thus continually developing their characters – keeping them ‘alive’ throughout the scene. ‘When a director tells you “be more angry”, nothing’s more unhelpful’, explains McDonagh. Through these improvised explorations, the characters’ reactions are natural and spontaneous – ‘real’, rather than rehearsed. The actors work off each other, rather than to a rote-learned response. It is testimony to the talent of the actors involved that this method is able to work – for it relies on instinct and a sensitivity that only the very best can achieve. Director Mike Leigh, famous for the quality of his naturalistic dramas, uses this very method.
Will this experiment work, or will it fail? The show will be different every night. The risk McDonagh is taking in trusting his actors to this extent is a big one, but from what I’ve seen, it will definitely pay off.